At first, there was food.
Mostly seasonal fruits, roots and tubers, leaves, flowers, and tree bark. Then scampered in meat. The veggies came later, when our nomadic foremothers and forefathers dug their roots in.
Then came supplements.
The first ones were the vitamin pills. They emerged as the scourge for scurvy, and other deficiency diseases. So far so good. Dare we deny a pill in the face of a dire want and no time to lose? But then, haunted by the specter of deficiency, we began popping more and more of these pills, scared that our diets weren’t enough.
Shortly after, we moved on to something extra, not to prevent diagnosable deficiencies but to prevent diseases altogether. Superfood extracts (green tea extract or blueberry extract) or, for more bang for the buck, the superstars that make superfoods (curcumin, resveratrol, or the omega-3s).
Then we thought up radical supplements that could altogether replace food as we know it, love it, drool over, and bond over. These started with the seemingly harmless protein bars and shakes and ended with fat substitutes and meal replacement liquids.
Together, these sounded like an invite to the garden of good health by the fountain of eternal youth!
But they are not what meets the eye
Study after study has found that such supplements cannot help our body balance itself. On the contrary, they may upset the fine balance our body has been building up ever since its womb-days.
Even if we turn a blind eye to the lack of variety of nutrients as well as the presence of anti-nutrients in the food replacements, our body doesn’t. These are not food as our body has come to understand and accept over millions of years of evolution – that is whole food deriving nourishment organically from nature. Our high-strung immune system tags these foods as “suspicious strangers” and triggers inflammation, which eventually spreads to the entire body. So much for balance.
It’ll probably take us a few more evolutionary jump cuts before the body makes friends with these strangers.
Even the vitamin, mineral, or antioxidant supplements fall short on their promise.
First, these isolated ingredients get zero support from the food matrix in whole food.* Which is why vitamin C from pills is not as efficient as an equal amount of C from orange juice.
Not as efficient is a best-case scenario, however. In the worst case, the isolated ingredient can be harmful. Plenty of evidence shows how synthetic folic acid gives rise to a number of side effects that food folate doesn’t.
Second, each of us needs different amounts of micronutrients, however microscopic. With all the fortified foods we eat, there’s always a risk of overdosing on mass-produced one-dose-for-all-adults supplement pills. That’s a health risk. Fat-soluble vitamins stay in the body, unused. And while the water-soluble ones are flushed out, when in excess, some (read vitamin B6) can do enough damage in that short time. Isolated antioxidants are a whole other scarefest.
Third, supplementation for a long time can render our body incapable of working on its own. It’s like we forget certain skills when we outsource certain tasks. So if we’ve been constantly pumping in vitamin D, it’s going to take our body a whole lotta time to relearn the ropes of D-making again.
What’s really funny (in a sad way), though, is that unhealthy eaters who take these supplements needn’t bother to because these alone are never going to help. And healthy eaters who take these supplements don’t need to because they’re getting most of it from healthy foods.
Healthy eaters could instead focus on making food more functional, that is getting more out of what they are eating. By processing food the right way. Or by making the body more efficient with a little help from the third type of supplements.
Some supplements, however, have long complemented our diet.
We have been using them for ever. As herbs and spices. Asian, Mediterranean, and Caucasian diets have always been spice and herb-heavy, which speaks to their superior health and longevity.
For the sake of clarity and distinction, let’s call these complements. A complement is what is needed to make a whole. It’s not an add-on. If we get down to the basics, food itself is a complement to the process called life. As are water and air.
Herbs and spices are not much different from food anyway.
At the molecular level, food is made up of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) that run the show and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that stage-manage.
So are spices and herbs. Of course, they do not have a lot of macros to offer. But they more than make up for it with micros of a special type called antioxidants.
Our body has an internal store of antioxidants, in the form of enzymes (glutathione, catalase, superoxide peroxidase, etc.) and hormones (melatonin, estradiol, etc.). Food supplies the rest. Plant food also offers a wide variety of potent antioxidant groups like polyphenols, carotenoids, and alkaloids besides vitamins and minerals. Together, our body’s antioxidants and those from food neutralize highly reactive cell-damaging molecules called free radicals.
Free radicals are the bugbear of this century and antioxidants are the knights in shining armor. There’s a twist in the tale, however. Free radicals are produced during as essential natural processes as breathing. They are also generated upon exposure to unavoidable things like UV rays and exercise or ubiquitous toxins like cigarette smoke and pesticides. So a body without free radicals is one that has stopped breathing. Plus, they are not bad beyond redemption. They are routinely deployed by the immune system to kill pathogens.
Complements help balance the oxidant–antioxidant equation
A delicate balance between free radicals and antioxidants is essential for us to thrive. Our own antioxidants and food maintain it well in an ideal world. But in the real world, toxins find many a sneaky route into our body, tipping the balance in favor of free radicals. Even a healthy diet falls short of the mark, and it takes our body a few days to rebalance. How do we then maintain the balance?
Not by adding isolated or synthetic antioxidant supplements, that’s for sure. Antioxidants don’t function as well without the food matrix. Worse, there’s also the risk that in large quantities, they defect and join the free radical squad.
Nor by digging through bigger heaps of food on larger plates. We need to eat smart.
Enter herbs and spices. Even the little amount we use to temper, garnish, or flavor offers a gamut of antioxidant plant chemicals. Each of these comes with a unique skillset to defuse different types of free radicals.
With herbs and spices, as with food, variety is key.
There are of course some helpful herbs and spices that are not part of our conventional diets because they are not grown locally or we haven’t developed the palate for them. We could still include them in our diet in their dried and powdered form or as teas.
Complements help balance other body functions
Fire-fighting (literally) free radicals is just one of the many skills on the resumé of these complement herbs and spices. Integrating themselves into many pathways in our body, they increase its efficiency in several functional areas.
Many herbs modulate the enzymes that speed up various biochemical reactions in the body. Enzymes need specific microenvironments to function their best. The herbs can either crank up or dampen their efficiency, depending on what our body needs to stay in balance.
Amla or Indian gooseberry inhibits carb-degrading enzymes (α-glucosidase and α-amylase) in the small intestine when the blood glucose levels keep rising during a meal. This makes sure there’s less glucose for the intestine to absorb and release into the blood. With the blood glucose balance maintained, our body has a better shot at steady energy rather than highs and lows on cue from food.
On the other end of the spectrum, bitter herbs like aloe vera or andrographis stimulate liver enzymes to increase bile production. Bile breaks down fats. The right metabolism of fats has a lot to do for our health – for starters, more vitality and smaller spare tyres despite the french fries and burgers we may occasionally devour.
Another crucial thing that herbs, like food, do is balance our immune response. It’s critical that our immune system responds to threats appropriately. Any less, we’d be capitulating to infections; any more, we’d be burning out inside with chronic inflammation.
Amla, on the one hand, can activate immune cells like macrophages, natural killer cells, and B and T cells. On the other, it can inhibit chemicals that carry signals for inflammation.
Andrographis, likewise, can activate the production of antibodies. But it can also do an about-face and stop immune cells from traveling across the body.
It’s not just about regulating one function, though. A single herb can help balance more than one function. Talk about versatility.
Take chamomile, the old reliable for the poor sleeper. It has a compound called apigenin that functions similar to a nerve-calming chemical called GABA (γ-aminobutyric acid) and activates the same pathways for good sleep.
But that’s not all chamomile does. It also helps keep the muscle contractions in the food tract regular. As food passes at a regular rate, we absorb nutrients better.
Bay leaf, on the other hand, slows down the passage of food through the intestines so that more nutrients are absorbed. It also helps reduce the quantity of fluids released by our intestinal walls, so that we don’t lose water through stool.
This is not the doing of a star player, however. A number of bay leaf flavonoids, alkaloids, and tannates make it a team event.
- Mental well-being
Likewise, curcumin takes the credit for everything good turmeric does. But in molecular reality, there are actually a whopping 235 identified compounds working in tandem in these yellow roots. Besides fighting free radicals, turmeric also helps improve mood.
It can inhibit two enzymes called monoamine oxidase A and B that catalyze the oxidation (read destruction) of dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine and serotonin are nerve chemicals linked to a happy state of mind.
Velvet beans too have a similar effect but via a different mechanism. Their seeds contain L-dopa or levodopa, which is the building block for dopamine. They may even have some serotonin. These can restock our personal “happy hormone” store. Though a source of protein in South Asia, velvet bean seeds are not part of a conventional American diet. The best way to get them may be dried organic seed powder.
Let’s step up to the plate
We need natural supplements as we need food, but the right kind. The kind we call complements. The kind that is as close to their natural form as possible. The kind that is capable of making our bodies better managers of food, sleep, time, and energy.
Nothing’s better than being able to incorporate more of these naturally into our diets. But if we can’t, the second best option is to get them in a dried, powdered, or tea form, without any additives or preservatives.
Happy balancing to us!
1. Food matrix: Food does what it does to our body not just because of its ingredients but also because of how the ingredients are all bound together in an intricate physical and chemical structure. This structure is the food matrix. It can support or suppress an ingredient’s availability and function in the body.